Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, part 2

(Note: Part 1 of this - mostly talking about Arena and Daggerfall - is here.)

The third Elder Scrolls game (skipping Battlespire and Redguard, which weren't nearly the same thing and aren't included in the numbering system) was Morrowind, released in 2002. In the screenshots above, you can see how much difference six years meant to the graphics!

And Morrowind was, indeed, a great game. And yet,... I was disappointed that Bethesda hadn't continued with the procedurally-generated content they'd introduced in Daggerfall.

It wasn't that Morrowind was too small - I never did get to everything in the base game, to say nothing of the two expansions. But I liked the feeling that Daggerfall gave me, that it was a real world out there, most of which I'd never see, let alone influence.

And procedurally generated content doesn't have to be just the terrain and the buildings. People, too, are similar enough to have the same needs, yet plenty diverse in how those needs are expressed. I was very disappointed to see a mainstream game developer move away from the promise of that, leaving it to individuals working with far fewer resources.

There were minor disappointments, too. I loved riding horseback in Daggerfall, and driving a wagon. You could park your wagon outside a dungeon while you went exploring, then fill it with loot from the doorway, without ever leaving the dungeon.

That was far more realistic than carrying multiple suits of armor on your back, and it was also convenient. Let's face it, one of the real draws of an RPG is gathering loot, both to use and to sell. I guess we're all mercenary in that way, huh? Making that difficult, even for the sake of realism, is just annoying.

In Daggerfall, it worked well and it was realistic enough, too. Plus, I loved the sound effects - the clip-clop of my horse's hooves and the jangling of the harness - as I rode through town. (Of course, when it comes to riding a horse, and even fighting on horseback, no one has done that as well as the original Mount&Blade. I really don't understand why not.)

Finally, I have to mention the snowfall:

(Please note that that's not the original music from the game. If you want the original, check out this video. I would have posted that one, except for the screwy "dancing" he did.)

It's hard to believe now, given how poor the graphics seem these days, but I just loved those gentle snows in Daggerfall. Even Skyrim doesn't come close to that, not that I've seen, at least. Skyrim has blizzards, snow whipping past the character and constant wind noise, which gets so annoying that I've had to turn the environmental sounds way down.

Snow in Daggerfall was peaceful and lovely, even during a desperate battle. (And note, in that video, how you can walk or ride directly out of the city through a gate, with no cut-scene. You can't even do that in Skyrim, though the cities are much, much smaller. As I noted in my last post, that just blew me away when I played the game. Even better, there were other ways to enter a city, when the gates were locked.)

Of course, snow wasn't everywhere in Daggerfall. Different provinces had different terrain, different climates, different building styles. And snow is hardly a reason to play a game. But it was something I missed in Morrowind.

And then, early in the game, as I was exploring just outside of Seyda Neen, a thunderstorm rolled in. I had the speakers turned up high - for the sound effects - as usual, and I almost jumped out of my chair at the first crack of thunder. Then the heavens opened up and rain poured down!

It felt so real that I immediately tried to run under cover. Obviously, I didn't want to get wet. :)  Of course, the game wasn't that real. But I found myself avoiding low areas, because I didn't want to get bogged down in the mud. The game wasn't that real, either, and I knew it. But my immersion in the game was so good that I tended to act as if it were.

I loved that, and I loved Morrowind in general. I spent most of my time just exploring the world. Well, I don't usually follow the main quests very far. But I did a little of that. And I joined the Fighters Guild and the Mages Guild, the Imperial Cult and the Imperial Legion, among others, and I completed many of those quests, too. It was lots of fun.

Now, I wasn't a fan of the blowing dust of the Ashlands, not at all. In a way, that was like the blowing snow of Skyrim. I like strange locations, but I want pretty ones. I want beautiful sights, even in very dangerous areas. And blowing dust or snow is just annoying. Still, there were plenty of beautiful sights to see (and if the dust was blowing, I could always wait a day for the weather to clear).

One other thing I liked about Morrowind - much better than in Skyrim - was that there were multiple ways to get around. There was no "fast travel" per se in Morrowind, but there were multiple ways to travel quickly from one part of the province to another.

You could take a silt strider - a giant insect you rode from city to city (though we never got to experience that, or even see it, unfortunately) - or a boat. You could teleport between mages guilds. If you completed a quest, you could teleport between propylon chambers elsewhere in Morrowind, too.

You were almost always close enough to one of those to travel quickly in Morrowind, but you stayed in-game by doing so. That's not the case when using the "fast travel" system of Oblivion or Skyrim. And although you can hop a wagon in Skyrim, that seems to be the only other option.

What happened to teleporting between mages guilds? Of course, there is no Mages Guild in Skyrim, but why did the technology have to disappear, too?

There were lots of things I loved about Morrowind, including the Athletics and Acrobatics skills that disappeared in later games - and many great spells like Levitation, Unlock, and Slowfall that have likewise been abandoned, apparently in an attempt to make later games as simple as possible.

One of the things I didn't like was the screwy leveling system. The basic idea was still the same, that you'd increase skills by using them, and that this would increase your character's level. (Enemy level increased with yours, which I liked, since it meant I could explore all I wanted, right from the start. And as the game went on, you got to see new creatures, which kept the game fresh.)

But you really had to know what you were doing with the leveling system. You pretty much had to game it. Otherwise, you'd increase in level too rapidly, without the skills - or the high attributes - necessary to survive. Some skills were very, very easy to increase, but, though useful, they wouldn't necessarily keep you alive. Others were quite slow to increase.

So instead of just picking "major skills" and "minor skills" to fit your character, you had to game it - at least, I did, since I'm not very good at 'real-time' combat. For example, I couldn't afford to make Alchemy a major or minor skill, even though it was very, very useful, and I practiced it all the time.

Well, that was pretty much why I couldn't make it a major skill. It was just too useful - for making money, not just in combat - and too easy to raise. In fact, I maxed out my Alchemy skill while I was still a low-level character, it was that easy.

Likewise, your Athletics skill increased just by moving your character (well, when running, but walking was painfully slow), so you couldn't afford to make that a major skill, either. And you had to make sure you'd increased enough skills based on different attributes so you could increase those attributes when leveling, too.

That part of the game was awkward, but it was just a minor issue, really. Certainly, I ended up loving Morrowind. I was still disappointed in the direction they'd taken the game after Daggerfall, but Morrowind was probably a better game (and far less buggy, as well). Much as I loved Daggerfall, I really can't complain about Morrowind.

But The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was released four years later, and I'm afraid that was a disappointment. Ironically, I was disappointed mostly because it felt like I was just playing Morrowind again. Much as I loved Morrowind, I wanted a new game, not the same one I'd been playing for years.

Oh, there were minor changes, but almost all for the worse. The world felt much smaller. There were fewer spells. The skill system hadn't changed much, and that was something that needed to change. Otherwise, it seemed just like playing Morrowind in a different setting, without some of the details I'd liked in the previous game.

And the Oblivion gates were fun the first time I entered one, but not so much after that. It was an ugly realm - by design - and I don't much like to play in ugly settings.

But the worst thing about Oblivion, I think, was that my actions didn't seem to change anything. (True, this has been a problem throughout the series - and in almost all RPGs, in fact - but I guess I expected better in Oblivion.)

One of the first things you do in the main quest is to rescue Kvatch by closing the Oblivion gate - the first gate you encounter - that's opened near the town. Afterwards, everyone in the province recognizes you as "the hero of Kvatch." That was neat.

But what was not so neat - in fact, it was hugely disappointing - was that Kvatch stays a burned-out ruin afterwards. The residents of the town stay in their tent encampment on the road outside, even after you've closed the gate. They never return to the town and start rebuilding. They don't even leave and start over elsewhere. Nothing changes.

And that's a huge problem in a game where you're supposed to be helping people. Nothing you do seems to make the slightest difference. Why couldn't we see Kvatch starting to rebuild? Why couldn't the surviving townspeople have at least folded their tents and moved back into town?

Even if they'd have pitched their tents in the town, as a temporary measure (needing a place to sleep that hadn't been trashed or burned), at least that would have been something. At least you could see that your actions had mattered to them.

It was great to be called the hero of Kvatch afterwards, but my actions didn't seem to make the slightest difference to Kvatch families. So I could never get interested in the world. I didn't like the Oblivion side of things (inside the gates, I mean), although I did close a few of them. But mostly, I just wandered around.

And that was OK, but it was too much like Morrowind, without the neat locations and story and other features of Morrowind. In fact, out of all the earlier games, I remember Oblivion the least, even though it's the most recent. Nothing in the game really stood out for me. Later, I went back and played Morrowind some more. That was a lot more fun.

(Admittedly, I didn't try any of the Oblivion mods, and modding is something which has to be considered a huge plus in these games. If you don't like something, chances are you can find a mod - or even create a mod yourself - which will change it.

(Of course, if you rely on mods to change a game, I have to wonder if the game shouldn't just be a construction kit for mods. I've talked about procedurally-generated content in Daggerfall. Why couldn't you create something like that simply as the basis for a mod construction kit? You probably couldn't get 60 bucks for it, though.)

OK, next time, I promise, I'll actually start talking about Skryim. :)

Note: Here's Part 3.